Seasons don’t come much more festive for Australia than this 2017-18 summer. The Ashes are once again theirs. They lead the series 3-0 and can dream of a whitewash – another whitewash – against an England side that has disappointed in almost every way. For Steven Smith and his men, ’tis the season to be jolly and the most wonderful time of the year all rolled into one.
The question now is how they maintain their dominance in a dead rubber. Theoretically, it should not be difficult. A continuation of Smith’s prodigious run-scoring would go a long way towards 4-0, and the MCG is a venue that Smith enjoys. Smith has now captained Australia in three Boxing Day Tests and in the first innings of those matches he has made 192, 134* and 165*, for a first-innings average of 491 as Test captain at the MCG. And the way he has batted in this series, you wouldn’t put it past him to make 491 this time around.
For England, the challenge is rebuilding from the wreckage of their broken tour. They can forget about the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Yet To Come, but a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past might steer them in the right direction. Specifically, the Ghost of Christmas 1998. In that year, they arrived at the MCG with the Ashes already retained by Australia; the wheels, Nasser Hussain has said, were definitely off the England tour by that stage. Yet through an Alec Stewart hundred and big hauls from Darren Gough and Dean Headley, they found a way to bounce back and secure a memorable win. Such bounce for England now would be of the dead-cat variety, but they would take it all the same.
It is easier said than done, though. England will walk out at the MCG with many questions still unanswered. Is Alastair Cook‘s slump temporary or something more terminal? Ditto Stuart Broad? Can Moeen Ali continue to carry the spin load? How will their bowling depth perform in the absence of Craig Overton? And most importantly, what sort of Christmas miracle can prevent them going 0-4 down in the series?
Australia WWWWL (last five matches, most recent first)
In the spotlight
What more can be said about Steven Smith? In Perth, he became just the second man in Test history to score 1000 runs in four consecutive calendar years. He will likely be Test cricket’s top run scorer in 2017, needing just 14 runs in this Test to pass Cheteshwar Pujara (although Dean Elgar is also in the running, with a Boxing Day Test against Zimbabwe up his sleeve). He averages 74.00 as Test captain, second only to Don Bradman among regular skippers worldwide. And the ICC’s historical batting rankings tell us Smith is now equal second (with Jack Hobbs) to Bradman for the highest-ever batting rating. And his MCG record, as mentioned above, is phenomenal. If you are Australian, just sit back and appreciate what you are witnessing. Even if you’re not Australian, do it anyway.
It feels as though Alastair Cook has been around forever, probably because England haven’t played a Test without him since March 2006. He is far from an old man – in fact, today is his 33rd birthday – but is at an age where a dip in form inevitably leads to questions of cricketing longevity. And while it is true that Cook has failed to pass 40 in his past 10 Test innings, it is also true that his last innings before that was 243, and he averages 34.47 this year. It is also the case that this is not Cook’s first slump – he averaged 33.92 in 2013 and then 32.50 in 2014, before bouncing back in 2015, averaging 54.56. Write off a player of his quality at your peril.
Mitchell Starc will miss the Test due to a bruised heel and will be replaced by Jackson Bird. It will be Bird’s first Test since Boxing Day last year, and just his ninth overall in a five-year Test career.
Australia (probable): 1 Cameron Bancroft, 2 David Warner, 3 Usman Khawaja, 4 Steven Smith (capt), 5 Shaun Marsh, 6 Mitchell Marsh, 7 Tim Paine (wk), 8 Pat Cummins, 9 Josh Hazlewood, 10 Nathan Lyon, 11 Jackson Bird.
England have also lost a fast bowler to injury. Craig Overton, who has impressed in his first two Test appearances, has a fractured rib and is likely to be replaced by Surrey seamer Tom Curran, who would become the first England player to debut in a Boxing Day Test since wicketkeeper Warren Hegg in 1998.
England (probable): 1 Alastair Cook, 2 Mark Stoneman, 3 James Vince, 4 Joe Root (capt), 5 Dawid Malan, 6 Jonny Bairstow (wk), 7 Moeen Ali, 8 Chris Woakes, 9 Tom Curran, 10 Stuart Broad 11 James Anderson
Pitch and conditions
There are often plenty of runs available on the MCG drop-in pitches. The forecast for the first two days is for hot and sunny weather, but there is the chance of rain over the final three days.
Stats and trivia
The last team to beat Australia in a Boxing Day Test was England in 2010-11, when Australia were bowled out for 98 in the first innings and lost by an innings and 57 runs
Stuart Broad is (still) seven wickets away from becoming the second England player (James Anderson is the other) to take 400 in Tests
Pat Cummins remains so raw in long-form cricket that he has never played a first-class match at the MCG
Mitchell Starc has made a habit of missing Boxing Day Tests: since his Test debut in December 2011, he has played only one Melbourne Test (last year against Pakistan)
A table in the Sunday Times calculated that England’s tail-enders – James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Jake Ball – have received a combined total of 73 bouncers in 93 balls.
“It’s quite humorous actually, they haven’t taken 20 wickets in the series and we have, and they’re having a crack at our depth.”
Mitchell Starc will not play at the MCG, but he is more confident than England that Jackson Bird can step up as his replacement.
“The way he goes about his business shows he has got what it takes to be a great England captain.”
Chris Woakes, England’s allrounder, defends his captain Joe Root after Root was described by Ricky Ponting as resembling a “little boy” during England’s Ashes defeat.